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Fallouja Recovers Its Sense of Everyday Life

Most of the Sunni town went to the polls nearly a year after a crushing battle. Residents chafe at tight security enforced by Shiite troops.

October 17, 2005|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — Mayor Dhari Abdul Hadi was leaving his home for a City Council meeting a couple of months ago when he was attacked in an apparent assassination attempt.

But this being Fallouja, the mayor was packing a gun.

He shot one of the assailants dead, drove off, then swaggered into the council chamber to tell his tale.

After being held by insurgent fighters last year, then pummeled by a thunderstorm of American artillery, Fallouja is slowly moving toward normality.

Nearly everyone fled the bombing, virtually emptying the smashed city. But nearly a year after the battle for Fallouja -- the largest U.S. assault since the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- about 60% of the city's residents, roughly 200,000 people, have returned.

As many as 150,000 Falloujans voted in Saturday's constitutional referendum, despite threats from extremist groups and ambivalence about the charter.

The turnout showed the extent to which this largely Sunni Arab city is grasping for an everyday life.

Many people here still live in tents, however. Some squat in abandoned houses because theirs are gone, and others live amid the ruins of their own homes in the hope that they will someday scratch together enough money to build walls.

The city complains that the Iraqi transitional government has not kept its promise to send the $500 million Fallouja says it needs for reconstruction.

"We have only received $200 million," city reconstruction commissioner Fawzi Mohammed said.

"And that was the regime of [former Prime Minister] Iyad Allawi."

In the last three months, Falloujans, with the help of Americans, have tried to re-create a semblance of municipal infrastructure. There is a functioning government -- a City Council meets weekly, with members selected by various tribes and religious groups. Some councilmen wear tribal or clerical robes and headdresses, others work in suits and ties.

There is a police force composed entirely of Falloujans. They wear ill-fitting white shirts with loosely stitched shoulder bars, Russian pistols on their hips and rifles slung over their shoulders.

And there are the other assorted authorities: mosque and tribal leaders and even a few professional groups.

The jobless rate remains high, maybe 60%, though no one has reliable numbers. Most of Fallouja's factories, which once produced cement, flour and ice, are offline, punched through during the bombardment. Only the potato processing factory remains. But some businesses are returning, especially the auto repair outlets that once drew so many Iraqis to the city.

Mosques, schools and food shops inhale and exhale the children and parents of Fallouja, giving the city the semblance of normal life.

There is small-scale, do-it-yourself, recycled-brick construction. There are Falloujan newspapers. There is barefoot soccer raising the dust.

Insurgents sometimes challenge the municipal recovery. Someone drove a car bomb into a U.S. convoy in June, killing six American troops. During Saturday's vote, Iraqi forces' convoys were attacked with grenades.

Falloujans suspect that members of Al Qaeda still lurk in villages just outside the city.

Marines say the insurgent cells in town are probably local men with guns and explosives who don't like the Iraqi security forces who come from out of the area.

Falloujans also don't like the checkpoints that ring the city, appearing from nowhere like mirages in the vast desert province of Al Anbar. The stations are manned mostly by out-of-towners, reminding Falloujans that the city is still not entirely their own.

Residents don't like the raids, either, or the paperless detentions.

"Fallouja has a great many sons in detention, maybe 10,000, maybe more," City Council President Shakur Kamel said.

"We have full confidence when they are in American prisons. We are confident they will be released. But we are afraid for those detainees in the Interior Ministry jails because no one enters and goes out of those jails alive."

Some Falloujans see the Iraqi army as an outsider. The soldiers are mostly Shiite Muslims and may be loyal to Iran, some complain.

Falloujans are so distrustful of these troops that they posted unarmed bands of tribal volunteers outside polling stations. Many say they fear Iraqi security forces more than the insurgents or the Americans.

"If there is one potential flashpoint, it is between the [Iraqi security forces] and the people of Fallouja," said John Kael Weston, a U.S. State Department official assigned to the city.

Thousands of American troops are in or around Fallouja. Unmanned aerial drones, sounding like distant lawnmowers, monitor the city day and night. Marine convoys shuttle between Camp Fallouja, about 12 miles from town, and a small outpost within the city that serves as police headquarters, City Hall and a convention center.

But Weston said the time was fast approaching when the U.S. would leave Fallouja to its own future.

Falloujans, like most Sunni Arabs, boycotted the January parliamentary election. Many Sunnis now regret that move, which allowed other political factions in Iraq to make decisions without proportional input from the sect.

Weston said that with broad Sunni participation in Saturday's referendum and a parliamentary election in December, Falloujans have the opportunity to develop a legitimate political voice, one that is not distorted by violence.

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